We’re beginning to understand why music affects us so profoundly. It activates more areas of the brain than any other stimulus and provides profound benefits to both mind and body.
Music has the power to move us – both physically and emotionally. Transporting our minds back to a first kiss or a last goodbye; pulling us on to a dancefloor or pushing us to exercise that little bit longer; its universal language speaks to us all. The good news is music can also deliver a variety of positive effects on our health and wellbeing as we grow older.
I’VE GOT THE MUSIC IN ME…
Recent research that compared university graduates and a remote Cambodian hill tribe (who had no exposure to western music) found that both groups processed music in the same way. It seems we all have music embedded in our brains and it is processed by the same ancient brain circuitry used to read emotions in our movement. In short, music is primal – activating deep-seated brain regions that are used to process feelings (happy, sad etc.).
Why people love music has been an enduring mystery. Scientists have found that animals like different music to humans and that brain regions stimulated by food, sex and love also light up when we listen to music. Musical stimuli has been found to reach patients even at the latest stages of dementia when all other forms of communication such as recognition or language have failed.
“Music reaches parts of the brain that other things can’t,” explains neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminster. “It stimulates the brain in a very powerful way, because of our emotional connection with it.” Learning to play a musical instrument for example, has a far broader effect on the brain and mental function than any brain training app will do, and improves other abilities that are seemingly unrelated. In addition, new research published in the International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that playing a musical instrument during adulthood is significantly associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.
KEEPING IN TUNE
Given the overwhelming evidence of the positive effects of music, the old adage that “music is medicine” may literally be true. The neurochemical benefits of music can boost the body’s immune system, reduce anxiety, and help regulate mood. It can treat depression, improve memory function and combat loneliness. And importantly, the way we interact with music can be as individual to us as our favourite song. In the bath or on the bus, Beethoven or The Beatles, it makes no difference to the positive outcomes that can be gained.
There may be many advantages to immersing ourselves in a musical activity, but strangely, it is often one of the pastimes that slips as we grow older. Ask yourself, ‘when was the last time you really danced?’, or ‘can you remember singing out loud with gusto?’. Hopefully it was only a few hours ago, but for many of us it may have been months, years, or even decades ago.
MUSIC TO YOUR EARS
The British Association for Music Therapy says: “Music is something that we can all relate to regardless of age, and is often central to a person’s sense of identity. It provides us with ways to connect and share feelings, memories and moments with others, and offers stimulation and encourages expression. Music therapy can also enhance exploratory and creative abilities, as well as foster self-esteem and the sense of feeling valued and heard.”
With this in mind, we’ve compiled a selection of ways in which you can find your perfect pitch. The suggestions are loosely grouped into four sections: listen, play, sing and dance. Simple ideas to aid you in realising a brilliant later life – full of songs and laughter, music and merriment.
With its proven positive effect on both mind and body, missing out on music’s multiple benefits certainly would be a loss. As Friedrich Nietzsche philosophised, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Listening to music gives you a “total brain workout” and it’s a great way to keep your brain agile as you get older. This means improving mental sharpness and memory, which in turn can ward off depression.
It isn’t uncommon to find people still listening to the music that takes them back to their childhood, bringing nostalgia and a sense of youth into the present day. This is a perfect example of what music can do for the mind. As well as social affiliation and the feeling of being a part of a community, the pleasure and arousal from hearing the type of music in question, whether it be soft jazz, ballroom or war time music, brings about a positive change psychologically over a period of time.
That doesn’t mean to say you won’t get the same positive effect from enjoying modern music. Whether it’s Bing Crosby or Justin Bieber, connecting with music is the important part.
Here are some things to think about:
If you have a smartphone, you have access to apps that will turn your phone into the largest music library in the world. You’ll never need to buy music again.
Love the radio? Listen to your favorite radio stations for free with the TuneIn Radio app. With over 100,000 stations, TuneIn has the largest free selection of music radio stations from around the world.
Love picking your own songs? Download the free Spotify app. There are millions of songs on Spotify. Play your favourites, discover new tracks, and build the perfect collection to play anywhere.
Play music your way
The simplest way is to buy headphones for your phone (if they didn’t come with it already). If headphones aren’t your thing, you can buy wireless speakers and turn your phone into a sound system for the fraction of the price of an expensive system. That way you can take your music with you when you’re washing up or weeding the garden.
Forget Sudoku, brain training and crosswords. If you really want to stimulate the grey matter and benefit from an added defense against memory loss, cognitive decline, and diminished ability to distinguish consonants and spoken words, try learning a musical instrument. It has even been proven that professional musician have more brain matter than non-musicians.
Don’t worry if you’ve never tickled the ivories, strummed the guitar, or unpacked an instrument from its case – it’s never too late to start benefitting. There is no dispute that the longer you played an instrument (preferably from childhood) the greater the decline-defying benefiits. However, it’s not too late to gain benefits even if you don’t take up an instrument until later in life. A recent study found that after six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not.
Here are some things to think about:
You don’t need to have any prior musical expertise to start learning. There are lots of teachers in the Islington area – covering all instruments. Speak to Age UK Islington who can help you find teachers.
If you are a complete beginner, it makes sense to hire your instrument before you commit to a purchase. Islington Music (www.islingtonmusic.co.uk) offers an inexpensive hire service, including alto sax, flute, clarinet, trumpets, cornets, violins, violas and cellos.
Independent music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins (www.nordoff-robbins.org.uk) also specialise in supporting older players. Their specialist music teaching service was created to help people living with a disability or illness develop their musical skills, but accepts people of all levels of ability and skill levels range from absolute beginner up to Grade 8 standard.
Singing, especially group singing is enjoying a renaissance. With the popularity of TV shows like The Choir and Glee, singing in groups has become de rigueur.
In addition, group singing has been scientifically proven to lower stress, relieve anxiety, and elevate happiness.
There really is nothing quite so gratifying as creating a sound from within yourself that when mixed with others comes back to you as harmony. A wall of soothing, soul-stirring sound that will not only give you a lift, but will also give you the opportunity to meet with new people on a regular basis.
Study after study has found that singing contributes to quality of life. Endorphins, a hormone associated with feelings of pleasure are released by singing, as is oxytocin, another hormone, which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress. And the great news is you can be completely tone deaf and still reap the rewards. It is the taking part, not the success of your scales that counts.
FIND YOUR VOICE
Here are some things to think about:
Many people think of church music when you bring up group singing, but that is simply not the case. Take Islington’s All Voices Community Choir for example. There’s no need to read music or have sung in a choir before and they sing songs from all over the world across a number of genres including jazz, folk and rock.
The power of music, especially singing, to unlock memories and kick-start the grey matter is an increasingly key feature of dementia care. It seems to reach parts of the damaged brain in ways other forms of communication cannot. If you are caring for someone with dementia, speak to Age UK Islington about attending group singing sessions.
If singing is enjoying a renaissance, dance has been catapulted into the stratosphere with the success of the long-running series Strictly Come Dancing. Ballroom and Latin are officially back in fashion with classes reporting up to an 80% increase in attendees.
There is no disputing that dancing is great exercise. But it’s not just the benefit of physical movement that improves health and wellbeing for older dancers. There’s a swathe of research that shows the social dimension is almost as important as the physical aspect. Engagement with others in the community has as many health benefits in terms of mental wellbeing as the physical benefits of keeping moving in later life. For example, regular attendees of dance classes showed improvement in both their memory and their movement.
BEST FOOT FORWARD
Here are some things to think about:
There are loads of dance classes available to attend across Islington – from swing classes teaching lindy hop, charleston, blues and jazz to ballroom classes covering foxtrot, waltz, rumba and jive. Salsa dancing is also a fantastic way to improve health in a fun and social environment. Or try line dancing at Drovers Centre every Wednesday evening.
Dance fitness is also gathering momentum with Zumba Gold catering to the older generation, of all fitness levels, with lower-intensity Zumba classes.
For a less structured way to enjoy dance, there are always informal dances you can attend. They are a great way to stay active and meet new people. For example, North London Cares will be holding A Dance to Remember at the Whittington Park Community Association on June 24.
If you would like to discuss how we could help you, or someone you’re caring for realise the many benefits of music and its associated activities, why not call our contact centre on 020 7281 6018